Measure to protect refs, coaches gains momentum

  • CHUN

  • RHOADS

One of two bills introduced in the state Senate seeking harsher penalties for parents, spectators and athletes who assault or terrorize sports officials such as referees, umpires and coaches cleared its only committee hurdle Tuesday.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed Senate Bill 2612, which would establish the offenses of first- and third-degree assault of a sports official, plus terroristic threatening against a sports official.

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Sen. Karl Rhoads, the committee’s chairman, said he plans to amend the measure, including adding a provision to allow judges to ban offenders from attending games in the leagues or organizations where the offenses occurred for up to a calendar year.

The committee’s amendments weren’t available in written form in time for publication of this story.

The vote was unanimous, with Rhoads, Vice Chairman Jarrett Keohokalole and Sen. Kurt Fevella all voting in favor of the bill. Sens. Donna Mercado Kim and Mike Gabbard were excused. The bill was introduced by Oahu Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz.

Testimony, both in person and writing, was mostly in favor of the measure. First-degree assault against a sports official would be a Class B felony punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment, while third-degree assault against a sports official and terroristic threatening against a sports official would be Class C felonies punishable by up to five years behind bars.

Third-degree assault against most victims is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

Deputy Public Defender Susan Arnett called the bill “problematic in a number of ways” and added, “We do oppose it.”

“The assault in the first degree offense that it creates mirrors our current assault in the first degree offense,” Arnett testified. “… The proposal in this bill would make it harder, because you have to intentionally and knowingly cause serious bodily injury. They want to add ‘to a sports official undertaking the lawful discharge of their sports official duties.’ That doesn’t make sense, Arnett said. “… They come under any person who is in the current law.”

Arnett said the Office of the Public Defender “has always opposed the creation of special victim categories.”

“They do not provide special protection,” she said. “Individuals do not stop to consider what the penalty will be if they commit these types of crimes. Assault and terroristic threatening are normally done in the heat of the moment and people are not thinking straight when engaged in this kind of behavior.”

Arnett said there’s “an easy way to stop” the behavior the law intends to address.

“The child who’s related or the player who’s related to the person who’s engaging in the behavior is out,” of the game, she said.

Christopher Chun, executive director of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association, said a number of high school and youth sports officials were present to support the legislation.

Chun said he believes harsher penalties for those who assault or threaten officials are important.

“This is the way to get more officials … they need to feel that they are … a protected class,” Chun said.

Chun noted an incident at last week’s state wrestling championships in which a wrestler from Leilehua High School on Oahu, who had been disqualified, allegedly grabbed an official and verbally threatened him, then reportedly pushed a security guard to the floor.

“A student got arrested,” Chun said. “It might not stop something like that, but it would make everyone in the stands think twice. And now is the chance, the perfect opportunity to do this.”

Matthew Sumstine, a longtime football official who works in replay review in the National Football League, told lawmakers, “This is an issue, particularly on the terroristic threatening side, because that is what leads to the violence.”

“The shouting and threats … then come as an encouragement to other people to act on those threats,” Sumstine said. “It is vital that that be removed. It’s different if a fan yells, ‘Hey, ref, open your eyes. You’re missing a good game.’ That is not terroristic threatening. Terroristic threatening is, ‘I’ll see you in the parking lot to kick your butt.’ And that starts to lead to other things.

“So whatever we can do to amend the language … so that this is taken care of, would be advantageous to all sports officials, not just football.”

Written testimony in favor of the bill was submitted by state Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, the Hawaii Scholastic Soccer Federation and numerous individuals. Attorney General Clare Connors submitted written testimony expressing concerns similar to those of the Public Defender but not taking a stance for or against the bill.

The measure, as amended, will go back to the full Senate for another floor vote.

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No hearings have been scheduled for a similar measure, Senate Bill 2549, which was referred to the Judiciary Committee on Jan. 23.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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